Friday, September 20, 2013

Does Canada Need Harsher Penalties for Sexual Offenders?

            In the September 16, 2013 edition of the Globe and Mail, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is quoted as having said:

“We do not understand why child predators do the heinous things they do and, in all frankness, we don’t particularly care to.”

            These comments were made during a press conference in Richmond, BC in support of the Conservative government’s plan to introduce legislation this fall to “crack down” on people who sexually abuse children. The proposed legislation will reportedly include consecutive sentencing, mandatory minimum sentences, and publicly accessible registries; practices currently popular in the United States.     
            The sexual abuse of children evokes strong emotional responses in every Canadian, especially when children are abducted, sexually abused, and murdered by predatory offenders. However, it is important to remember that, although tragic and troubling, these latter cases are truly rare. As difficult as it may be to comprehend, these extreme crimes are also virtually impossible to predict or prevent. The offenders who commit them, however, do not represent the norm when it comes to sexual abusers.
            Mr. Harper’s comments imply that there is little known about sexual offenders and the reasons why they commit their crimes. This is simply not true. We understand quite a lot about sexual offenders, including pedophiles. The vast majority of sexual offenders target family members or friends, not strangers, as is commonly believed. More than two-thirds of sex crimes occur in the victim’s own home, often committed by a parent. Some higher risk sexual offenders have strong sexual interests in children (pedophilia) that lead them to offend, but not all child molesters are pedophiles or necessarily at high risk to reoffend.
            Mr. Harper also stated that we don’t care to know why sexual offenders do what they do. The Prime Minister’s comments are disheartening. The first step towards prevention is understanding the nature of the problem. Mr. Harper carelessly trivializes the accomplishments of dozens of Canadians who have dedicated their lives and careers to better understanding sexual abuse, including why it happens, how to help offenders stop, and how to prevent the abuse from happening in the first place.
            For almost half a century, Canada’s approach to offender management has been the envy of the world. Rates of sexual offending and reoffending in Canada have been in steady decline for the past two to three decades. In explaining these trends, we can point to directly to advances in risk assessment, treatment methods, and community supervision and citizen engagement—most of the seminal research on these topics having its origins in Canada. Indeed, many Canadian practitioners have been recognized internationally for their contributions to public safety. At home, several have been appointed Fellows of the Royal Society of Canada or Officers of the Order of Canada—our highest civilian honour.
            So, does Canada need harsher penalties for sexual offenders? Canadian research has shown for years that we do not. In fact, Canadian research has conclusively shown that more punishment does not lead to less crime. Do we need more prisons? Not likely. Do we need more resources for treatment and abuse prevention programs? Absolutely. The real challenge is primary prevention: How do we stop it from happening in the first place?
             Canadians are understandably concerned about sexual abuse, but our system is not broken. Mr. Harper’s government seeks to implement US-style criminal justice and correctional measures. However, the American example holds a dark promise. The US incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country. Our American compatriots have become increasingly aware that they can no longer bear the financial and human costs of a “get tough on crime” agenda. Prior to pushing ahead with new legislation, Mr. Harper would be well-advised to both check with his American colleagues and to review Canada’s illustrious history in criminal justice research.
            Better still, if Mr. Harper should ever care to better understand these issues, he might take a look in his own back yard and quit scaring ordinary Canadians whose tax dollars have long contributed to the many effective solutions we already share with the world.

Robin J. Wilson, Ph.D., ABPP is a Canadian psychologist in private practice in Sarasota, FL, and an Assistant Clinical Professor (Adjunct) of Psychiatry and Behavioural Neuroscience at McMaster University in Hamilton, ON. He has worked with sexual and other offenders in hospital, correctional, and community settings for nearly 30 years.

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